Careers and Ed: Cocktail frosh

Pub date January 9, 2007
WriterJustin Juul


Swanky-ass bars, high-end restaurants, sex, drugs — they’re all great things to love about San Francisco, but they can be cruel and constant symbols of failure to the scrilla deprived. With one-bedroom apartments currently priced at about $1,600 a month, cell phone bills hovering in the $75 to $150 range, and PG&E. religiously raping us for half our salaries, it’s amazing anyone can afford to live in this city, let alone enjoy its vast array of entertainment. But San Francisco has a secret. Unlike most cities, San Francisco pays its waiters, bartenders, and bussers almost $10 an hour. Add to that a healthy tip stash, and there’s at least a little disposable income to hit the town with.

Of all the jobs the service industry has to offer, bartending rules. We’re talking potentially $200 to $500 for six hours of work. OK, count me in. The major problem, though, is acquiring the skills to qualify. San Francisco has almost as many service-industry schools as it does bars and restaurants. Would I get scammed if I enrolled in one? With the ultimate goal of becoming a bartender, I spent a month researching the cultlike world of barkeep education, starting with a quest for the perfect school.


In order to minimize any money and time investments, I first looked for Web classes and free tutorials. I should have known better. Looking for a free or relatively inexpensive online course in bartending turned out to be a bigger waste of time than the hours I logged scouring the Internet for free porn as a young man. The sites of my youth always promised girl-on-girl action, fist-fucking, and bizarre fetish acts but only generated advertisements for sketchy online subscriptions or outrageously expensive chat sessions. The same was true, metaphorically, of,, and Each one taunted me with screen shots and personal testimonies but wouldn’t give up the goods without a credit card number. So I passed on the virtual cocktail-slinging and set about finding a real-world educator.

ABC Nationwide Bartending School (, 1-888-262-5824) looked promising but seemed a little too corporate for my taste. Other schools, such as National Bartenders School (870 Market, suite 828, SF; 415-677-9777,, seemed legitimate but didn’t quite have the attitude and style I associate with the glamorous life of a bartender. I want to be Tom Cruise in Cocktail, not the sad barkeep from Billy Joel’s "Piano Man." I want to serve mojitos, cosmos, and lemon drops to drunk yuppies, ending every night with fistfuls of easy cash and invitations to cologne-drenched orgies. Glamour! Eventually, I seemed to find perfection in the San Francisco School of Bartending (760 Market, suite 833, SF; 415-362-1116,, a school run and taught by local SF bartenders — sort of a FUBU for mixologists.

It works like this: for about $300 (a slow night’s tips for the average SF bartender) you get hands-on training and insider information from a seasoned professional. The classroom simulates an average pub, with music, neon beer signs, and a supersize bar with a pouring station for each student. There’s homework every night, a daily quiz, and a final exam. Near the end of every minisemester, students get a consultation with a professional résumé builder who has magical contacts to the city’s premier restaurants and bars. It’s a boot camp for bartenders, taught by some of the toughest and most knowledgeable drill sergeants around. The slick Web site, affordable price, and sense of community won me over. After a few simple clicks I was all signed up for a two-week course ($295, financing available).


When I arrived at the SFSOB bright and early on a Monday morning, I was immediately greeted by Gretchen Mitchell, a veteran bartender who has served in more than 50 restaurants and bars in her 19 years in the industry. She wasted no time getting started. "All right class, answer me this: if someone comes up to my bar and tries to get a slow screw up against the wall, what am I going to do?" There were blank stares all around as the other students and I tried to think of the right answer. "Should I give a knowing smile and assume the position?" she said. "Hell no! I don’t think so. A Slow Screw Up Against the Wall is a mixture of sloe gin, vodka, and orange juice with a splash of Galliano. I know this, not because I have it memorized, but because I think like a bartender, and that’s exactly what we’re going to teach you to do over the next two weeks. Now get behind your stations and get ready for some action." She paused, then added, "You’re gonna thank me, guys. In no time at all you’ll be having ‘creamy sex on the beach’ with a whole gang of ‘redheaded sluts.’ And ladies, you’ll be serving up expert ‘blow jobs’ and ‘screaming orgasms.’ " With that, class had begun.


I usually wait until around noon to have my first alcoholic beverage, but today was different. It was only 9:30 a.m., and here I was under the soothing neon lights of a real bar. Credence Clearwater Revival played in the background as I wiped down my section of mahogany, filled my ice chest, and got ready to make some drinks. Mitchell passed out laminated cards with pictures of simple drinks like tequila sunrises and screwdrivers and then drew our attention to overhead computer monitors. She was now the patron, and the other students and I were the all-powerful barkeeps. Laid out before us were soda guns, ice scoops, and quick-access mixers. Behind us were countless bottles of fake alcohol, glasses, and towels. We were ready.

"All right, guys, here’s how it’s gonna work: I’m going to walk you through the first couple of drinks, show you how to measure an accurate one-ounce shot without a cup, demonstrate the proper way to hold things, and so on. Then the computer is going to take over for a while. But before I do all that, I want to see what you already know." Mitchell took a breath, looked around, and then said, "Make me a screwdriver right now."

It seemed like an easy request, but as I fumbled around looking for orange juice and vodka, I realized I didn’t know how to mix them correctly. Mitchell watched as we tried to bullshit our way through the exercise. Some scooped ice with their glasses (a major no-no), poured in the orange juice, and then topped the concoction off with a haphazard shot of vodka. Others grabbed the vodka with two hands and then apprehensively poured it into an empty glass before adding the other ingredients. Our new sensei watched in disgust. Soon there were 11 crappy-looking screwdrivers sitting on the bar. The lesson behind the exercise was unmistakable: we didn’t know shit.

We spent the rest of the morning learning proper pouring techniques, standardized orders of mixing, and some light terminology. After lunch we came back and stumbled through a simulated happy hour during which the computer flashed orders while Mitchell marched to and fro shouting suggestions. I thought it would never end. With sweat pouring down my face, fake liquor soaking my shirt, and freezing hands, I poured drink after drink until Mitchell suddenly screamed, "Last call!" The computer stopped flashing. "Good job, guys," she said. "Shift’s over. Now clean up your stations and go home. Remember today’s lesson: bartending is a lot more complicated than you think. It’s not just Bukowski. It’s F. Scott Fitzgerald too."

The rest of the week followed a similar pattern. Mitchell lectured the class on a particular aspect of bartending and then turned the computer on and paced back and forth as we struggled to make drinks. Her teaching style grew warmer over time; eventually, she replaced her cold commands with a soft hand and a helpful voice. Under Mitchell’s guidance mixing drinks became second nature. I could pour a mai tai in a second. Mojitos, cosmos, dirty martinis — I could shoot them all out with ease. By the fifth day I felt like a pro, but I wondered if it was going to work. Would a two-week bartending course be all I needed to get a job? I sought the advice of some experienced bartenders.


According to Cory Norris, a bartender at an Irish pub in the Mission, the answer is no.

"Man, people come in with those certificates, acting like professionals, but once they get behind the bar, they’re fucking lost. The only way to get good at bartending is to jump in the fire. Those classes only work for people with big tits and blue eyes."

Another bartender, Tommy Basso, owner of Delirium, reiterated Norris’s sentiments. "You can’t learn bartending at a fucking school, kid. You’re gonna get back here and choke. You’re gonna have five dudes mad doggin’ you in the corner ’cause you forgot their beers, two chicks at one end of the bar stealing your cherries, two others chicks distracting you with their tits in the middle, and 20 drinks to make. You’re not gonna know what the fuck to do. Those schools are bullshit."

Basso and Norris scared me. Had my $300 been spent in vain? Had I been duped? In an attempt to assuage my anxiety, I went back to the SFSOB and asked Shawn Refoua, one of the other instructors there, about the real-world difficulties of gaining a foothold behind the bar. Refoua was familiar with the antischool attitude. "There is a scholastic component to every trade." he said. "I mean, can it really be true that bartending is so magical that you can only learn it in the field? That line of thinking just doesn’t make sense." Refoua has been teaching classes at the SFSOB for almost two years and has seen hundreds of students get good jobs. Like most teachers there, he keeps in close contact with his students via the Internet, using his MySpace page to notify them of job openings and changes in the industry. "I wouldn’t worry about people who say bartending schools don’t work," he said. "It’s true that a lot of people either fall into bartending or lie their way in. Maybe that’s why there are so many shitty bartenders around here. Many states actually require certification, you know."

As an SFSOB teacher, Refoua could be a little biased, of course. And real-world bartenders naturally look down on newbies. Any smart-ass could conclude, though, that both have good points. A self-taught bartender knows how to deal with a drunken crowd, and a school-taught applicant comes equipped with a deep understanding of liquor ratios, bar etiquette, and efficient pouring techniques.

I now feel confident enough to submit my résumé to all the places in my SFSOB counselor’s little black book. I can shake, stir, pour, mix, blend, and guess the ingredients in foreign drink names with ease. As far as handling belligerent drunks — well, I’m not worried in the slightest. My friends have taught me well. Just last night I had to stop one of them from jumping out of a fourth-story apartment, slap another in the face for throwing an egg at my girlfriend, and convince yet another to not buy more cocaine at 4 a.m. Bar owners of San Francisco, prepare yourselves. There’s a new cocktail jock in town. *